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Billy Hamilton: 2014 Leadoff Hitter?

The signing of Shin-Soo Choo gives the Rangers a player with strong on-base skills, solid power, and decent corner-outfield defense. The signing also left a gaping hole in the outfield for the Reds. Choo was one of three Reds starters that got on base at an above-average clip. He was easily the first- or second-best offensive player for the Reds in 2013. While he was miscast in center field, Choo brought a great deal of value to a team that needed his particular offensive skill set.

Walt Jocketty has stated that Billy Hamilton is the new center fielder and will likely bat leadoff for the 2014 Reds. Hamilton starting in center field should come as no surprise as the Reds do not have many other options. The wisdom of Hamilton batting leadoff is at least up for debate. You can easily go look at his projections for 2014 and draw your own conclusions, but I would like to at least provide some context.

Every baseball fan knows about Hamilton’s speed. He is ferociously fast. He stole 155 bases in the minors in 2012 and successfully stole 13 bases in 14 attempts in limited major league action in 2013. Speed is nice , but it is certainly not close to the most important skill for a player in the leadoff spot. Reds fans may know this best of all from watching Corey Patterson, Willy Taveras, and Drew Stubbs flounder at the plate. Those players were wickedly fast, but as the saying goes, you can’t steal first base. None of them had the on-base skills to bat leadoff, but they found themselves there anyway because of their speed. To avoid this list of failed Reds leadoff hitters, Billy Hamilton will need to get on base enough to justify being at the top of the order. That is the obvious question: can Hamilton get on base to use that blinding speed of his to turn singles into doubles and doubles into triples? There are signs that he can but others that he shouldn’t in 2014.

The 2012 season launched Hamilton into top-20 prospect territory. He obviously broke the stolen-base record, but he also showed some ability with the bat. In a 132 games between high A and AA, Hamilton hit .311/.410/.420. He had 14 triples. His walk rate rose dramatically from the year before. Hamilton looked like a perfect leadoff hitter through two levels.

Then 2013 and AAA came. Hamilton slashed .256/.308/.343. His walk percentage dropped from 16.9% in 50 games in AA (small sample size noted) to 6.9% in 123 games in AAA. it was arguably his worst season as a professional. He looked completely overmatched at times and questions about his ability to get on base resurfaced.

So which is the real Billy Hamilton, and what does it mean for 2014? Hamilton’s ceiling is likely between his 2012 and 2013 minor league performance. In five seasons as a minor leaguer, Hamilton slashed .280/.350/.378. Coupled with his speed and potential excellent defense in center field, that slash line could make him an All-Star-caliber player. The hope is that 2013 was a product of learning a new position and a significant drop in BABIP from over .370 to .310.

Still, Hamilton was very inconsistent at the plate in 2013 and didn’t prove he could hit AAA pitching for an extended period of time. The major leagues are an obvious step up in competition, and it would be surprising to see him match his .280/.350/.378 minor league career slash line in 2014. Steamer projects him to have a .305 OBP, and after last year, it is easy to see why.

While it is very possible Hamilton could surpass gloomy projections, the Reds probably shouldn’t risk it in 2014, at least at first. It makes much more sense to see how Hamilton adjusts to major-league pitching in a less important part of the lineup (7th for instance). He would get fewer at bats and would not be so heavily scrutinized if he struggled adjusting to the level. If he performs well, he can always move up in the lineup, but the Reds likely have better leadoff options than Hamilton to begin the year.

If Hamilton plays excellent defense in center field and has a good year on the bases, he will provide solid value for the Reds. To fill Choo’s shoes, he will have to hit closer to his career minor league mark as opposed to his 2013 numbers. In 2014, that may be difficult.